Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Snippets - Bach, defence policy, happiness & a bit of collateral damage

My thanks to readers who picked up the error in yesterday's post, Why I support Tony Windsor. Such a stupid basic thing to do and so public. I'm still not quite sure how it happened. Still, as I said in a Facebook comment, it's actually reassuring to know that my errors do get picked up.

Today, just a few Sunday Snippets.

For a while, I thought that we had lost Paul Barratt to the world of Twitter. However, Australian Observer is back to regular posts. Before talking about the posts, a comment on Twitter itself.

Working on site, I don't have access to Twitter during the day. The network settings ban access to social media sites including Facebook as well as Twitter.  I used to check in with Twitter several times a day. Now checking in only at night, I find that the stream of short tweets has become just too large for me to comprehend. I am very close to becoming an ex-Twitter person.

Returning to Paul, I thought of marcellous as I read Eula Beal sings Bach. Sidetracking, Sydney is a very small world. More precisely, it is a large sprawling city made up of many small worlds that sometimes interact. Marcellous's Underutilised is a case in point. This is a supremely local village green type post. It made great sense to me because marcellous is talking about an area I know well. Yet, like stories in a local newspaper that you have read while travelling, it probably seems tantalisingly obscure to others. You get it, but you also know that you are missing much.

In Sending Australians to War, Paul reports on the release by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW – of a paper he had written for them on the desirability of relocating to the Australian Federal Parliament the decision making power concerning the deployment of the Australian Defence Force into hostilities or situations likely to lead to hostilities. In another post, guest blogger Andrew Farran's Defence Force Structure - Looking in the wrong direction again! looks as at the discussion on the future directions of Australia's defence policy.

Both posts reflect Paul's long standing interest in defence policy. If you read Sending Australians to War, you will see that Paul is a pretty effective publicist! The Farran post is interesting, but to me it misses one major point. There is not a single reference to India. Australia is concerned with the Indian as well as Pacific oceans. To my mind, the evolving relationship between India and China is critical to the future strategic scene.

As I said in a comment on Winton Bate's post What is the 'World Happiness Report'?, there is something almost Orwellian about some of the discussion that takes place on happiness and national well being. Crudely, and this obviously reflects my own biases, the selection of metrics to measure happiness can lead to official action to try to improve those metrics. Happiness, or at least a version of it as measured, is mandated.

This is not an attack on Winton's post nor his broader arguments, just an observation on official actions.

I know that I get a bit boring on some of these things, but have a look at Young love comes back to haunt couple. As the state gets deeper and deeper into its command, control and protect phase, the victims mount. They are the collateral detritus.

I find in discussion on these issue that people are pretty blind to the adverse results - yes but rules. it's not until it happens to them that they get it, and then it becomes very personal.

Staying local, down in Wollongong Neil Whitfield's Musing on my Anzac Day experience this year records his reactions to his participation in the ANZAC Day march. Neil (Ninglun) and I have been blogging friends for a long time. I read the post at a personal level and was glad.

Denis Wright was another Australian blogger recording his reactions to ANZAC Day. On war and peace starts with Gandhi and then moves forward. I often think of Ramana when I read Denis. Both have a deep interest in spiritual issues, both usually write gentle personal posts observing their personal world that tend to uplift, while Denis has a deep interest in Asia and especially the Indian sub-continent.

Denis's second ANZAC Day post was Four seasons and a wedding. Do read it. I think that you will find it accessible even though it's another local post. It's also part of a world that Denis and I share. It represents a small slice of that New England life and history whose texture, the pattern, I try to bring alive in some of my own writing. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why I support Tony Windsor

Yesterday I had scheduled a finale to my train reading series on Toynbee's Civilisation on Trial but time intervened, so no post at all! I will return to Toynbee tomorrow. Today, I just want to roam a little.
Back in November, I commented (Slippers, feather dusters & the mining tax) on the appointment of Peter Slipper as speaker of the House of Representatives. At the time, I thought that while it gave the Government one more vote on the floor of the Parliament, things such as the passage of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax were of more importance.

As it happened, Mr Slipper proved to be an extremely good speaker. However, his appointment has also proved to be yet another poisoned chalice for the embattled Gillard Government.

I have deliberately not commented on the scandal involving Mr Slipper. However, for the benefit of international readers, Mr Slipper has been forced to stand aside as speaker amidst allegations that he criminally rorted cab charge entitlements. He also faces civil court action over a claim that he sexually harassed a male staff member.  The Government says that they will support his return to the chair if Mr Slipper is cleared of criminal behaviour. However, the two key New England independents have reportedly indicated that they would not support such a move until the civil case is settled.

It's all very messy.

Meantime, the National Party has launched an on-ground blitz to try to get back the four New England seats (the two independents plus two ALP) that they don't hold. Northern NSW, the broader New England, was Country Party then National Party heartland from the Party's formation. It provided a solid base for a Party whose fortunes elsewhere could fluctuate wildly. This held true despite the long term structural decline of the North, something that I often write about.

As part of the push, Matt Harvey reported in the Armidale Express on 23 April that the Nationals had approached Richard Torbay, the independent member for the Northern Tablelands, to run for New England against Tony Windsor. I quote:
Mr Torbay told The Express that The Nationals, Liberal Party and Bob Katter’s Australia Party had all approached him in recent weeks to step up from State politics for a run at preselection in the seat of New England.
“I’m not the sort of person who changes my values, and my values are about delivering outcomes,” the independent MP told The Express.
“I’ve worked closely with both sides of politics, and in fact I’ve been accused of being part of both sides of politics in my career.”
Another to be courted in recent weeks by The Nationals is Walcha farmer and National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie, who refused to rule out a run at preselection.
Mr Torbay confirmed that if he was to align himself with a party, it would probably be The Nationals.
He reiterated that the independent brand had been “greatly damaged”.
“I am concerned that, federally, for an independent at the next several Parliaments, it’s going to be very difficult to have influence in that situation, given what’s happened with the independents in the current hung Parliament,” he said.
“I can confirm that I have been approached by The Nationals to run for the seat of New England, or run for their pre-selection for the seat of New England.
“I’ve actually been approached by more than The Nationals,” Mr Torbay said.
“The Liberals have approached me, as well as the Katter Australia Party. That was a very interesting meeting, but I don’t quite have the hat for that particular party,” he added tongue-in-cheek.
Asked how strongly he was considering a move to federal politics, Mr Torbay said: “Well, I have made no secret of my disappointment about the trashing of the independent brand.
“There’s no doubt it’s been damaged by a hung Parliament, and that’s been very disappointing from my perspective.
“We’ve seen that reflected in a number of State polls, where Victoria now doesn’t have any more independents in their Parliament; there were three lost at the last NSW election; and at the recent Queensland election we saw three independents go.
“So, there’s no doubt there’s been massive brand damage, and that’s what I think has caused these approaches to occur.”
He said that if he sought pre-selection, his decision would not be based on a personal offensive against Mr Windsor.
“It’s not about personalities for me,” he said. “It’s about outcomes being delivered for our local areas. I really like speaking up on local issues, and representing the community. Those are matters that will not be negotiable for me in the future. I think it’d be smart for a party to pick up those sorts of approaches.
“And if there are political members of parliament who don’t believe there has been damage to the independent brand, they are clearly not hearing the very strong messages in the community. I think people will vote away from a hung Parliament in their droves.”
He added that, “I don’t want to see New England sidelined in the future. We can’t afford to pay a price”
Mr Windsor yesterday said that, “I won’t give a running commentary on this”.“The time for debating it will be when the next election is called,” he said.
The popular local MP said that if he did accept an offer to join a party, it would be “on my terms and not a strings-attached deal”
Scot MacDonald, Guyra based Liberal member of the Legislative Council or Upper House was not impressed. He and Richard have recently been trading blows in the local papers over regional population growth. He commented:
Sorry Richard, but you must have been wearing your tights too tight.
The Liberal Party has not approached you.
The LP doesn't sit well with value free, policy free political opportunists.
Keep dreamin'
Scot MacDonald MLC

Two days later, the Express's Stephen Jeffrey filed a follow up story. Richard had been approached, an approach that had been endorsed by the National's state deputy leader Adrian Piccoli. The story went on: 
His backing came as the war of words between Mr Torbay and Liberal Duty MLC for Northern NSW, Scot MacDonald, heated up yesterday.
Mr MacDonald lashed out at Mr Torbay,describing his interest in running federally as being driven by “political opportunism”.
Mr Piccoli, who is also the Education Minister in the O’Farrell Government, told The Express that Mr Torbay would be an asset to the party if he were to accept the offer of running federally as a National.
“The Nationals have known Richard for a long time - I’ve personally known him for 13 years - and he has been an incredibly effective member for his community, so why wouldn’t we approach him to become a part of our team?” he said. “The people of New England want an effective member of parliament, and if Richard was to run for one of the Coalition parties it would be fantastic from our point of view.”
Now all this must sound pretty obscure, especially for someone outside Australia. Yet this is the working out at local level of steps that will affect Australian national politics.

The National Party's Barnaby Joyce has expressed his interest in returning to his New England home by running for the New England seat, thus allowing him to compete for the leadership of the National Party. The approach to Richard may scupper that.The Labor Government survives because two New England independents support it. All the talk about the instability of minority governments conceals one basic fact.

The most stable element in national governance has been the support of the New England independents. Tony Windsor in particular has been steadfast: he and Julia Gillard made a deal and he will stick to that so long as she keeps her word. If only the Labor caucus or, for that matter. the media had been that stable!

I will write some posts on my New England Australia blog about some of the regional implications of all this,

 For the moment, I want to make a simple point.

I was not a supporter of Mr Windsor when he entered politics. I regarded his decision to leave the Nationals and run as an independent as a betrayal. Yet as time has proceeded, he has grown in stature.

I have been just so impressed by his recent performance. When Tony Windsor is asked a question about his position on an issue such as Mr Slipper's present position, he sets out a view clearly and simply based on principles. One may disagree with his view or indeed his principles, but you know where you stand. More importantly. you know that he will hold to his position until there is evidence to change it.

What a contrast to Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott!

By the time their positions have been managed though the spin system, you a need a PhD in logic to understand the linkages. I actually have no idea what either stands for! If Richard Torbay runs, and I have a high opinion of him too, he had better be ready to explain why he is running. And local self-interest is not enough!        

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Welcome visitor 150,000

Visitor 150,000 arrived last night. I should say more precisely, the 150,000th visitor since 26 November 2006 when I put up the first stats package. Of those visitors, 72 per cent are uniques, 28 per cent are repeat visits. Those 150,000 visitors viewed 207,548 pages.

In a way, it's a bid sad that 72 per cent have never returned. Still, 28 per cent is not bad!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ANZAC Day, Toynbee & impermanence

Here in Australia today is ANZAC Day. I could tell that it was coming for last year's ANZAC Day post, ANZAC Day, national identity & the power of images, suddenly reappeared as a top post in my blog stats.

This is the seventh ANZAC Day since I started writing this blog. Looking back, I have largely ignored the celebration. In my one and only post on ANZAC Day prior to last year, I wrote:

"I have very mixed feelings about ANZAC Day

As I wrote in an earlier post written on Remembrance Day (11 November), 416, 809 Australians enlisted for service during the First World War, representing 38.7 per cent of the total male population aged between 18 to 44. At almost 65 per cent, the Australian casualty rate (deaths, wounds, illness) proportionate to total embarkations was the highest of the war.

All Australian families were affected.

Uncle Will's Christian beliefs would not allow him to take life, but he felt that he must do his duty. His solution was to join as a stretcher bearer. On the day of the Gallipoli landing he wrote to brother Morris:
"I have tried to play the game and to live up to the ideas Jesus has set before me."
Will survived the War, Morris did not.

Morris did not enlist immediately. Then on 7 August 1915 he wrote to brother David (my grandfather):
"Perhaps you will not be altogether surprised but I have felt it coming on - like a bad cold .... while I have the conviction that men are really required I cannot hang back and let someone else carry my bundle... I've taken the step and hope it won't be labour in vain, but at any rate I've no delusions about the fun and glory of it."
Morris was offered an immediate commission but declined it. Officer training would have delayed his passage, and he also wanted to know first something about the men he would command.

In May 1917 came the news that Lieutenant Morris Drummond MC had been killed in brave but futile attempt to force the German lines in front of Reincourt. Lt. Jim Harrison, a fellow officer, wrote to Will Drummond on 6 May:
"Maurice was ... the most fearless officer in the Batallion, he was exceeding his duty at the time, very typical of him."
Many in my generation, that affected by the Vietnam War, had reservations about ANZAC Day because we saw it as a celebration of war. While my own views have changed over time, I still have mixed feelings.

All nations require symbols to unify their peoples. I find it a little sad that a military event, that Australia's military tradition, should become so dominant in symbolic terms. Still, in typical wry Australian fashion, we celebrate a defeat!"

This is a personal blog. The title I chose for it, Personal Reflections, accurately reflects its intent. Those who know me personally will know that my personal moods and experiences drive my writing. In it's own way, this blog is a personal diary.

Unlike previous years, ANZAC Day had a special meaning for me last year. P1020333
In September and October 2010 we visited Greece and especially the Greek Islands. This is a photo of Denise, Clare and I taken at our hotel in Athens.

It was a happy time. It was also a time that allowed me to indulge my love of history. As I walked the cobbled streets, looked at the buildings, gazed at the seas that Homer had recorded, some of the history that was interested in had a new visual and geographic expression.

As Australian soldier John Learmouth travelled on the troop ship towards his still unseen death on Crete, he wrote:
I have forgotten what little ancient history I ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed in the04_acropolis_225se seas. I wonder did the Sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. Thousands of years ago men have sailed these seas to go to war, and we sail them today for the same purpose.
I had not heard of John Learmouth When I visited Crete. However, I was aware of the deaths of New Zealand and Australian soldiers in the Battle of Crete. They were just the latest in a long line of deaths in this contested arena.

This led me to visit the war memorial museum at Iraklion.
I saw last year's ANZAC Day through the prism set by these experiences. It led me to write a number of posts linked in some way to ANZAC Day. This year, I find that my mind is running on a different track.

My historical research and writing means that I am constantly aware of the fragility of the human condition. I have no especial expectation that anything that I love or am just familiar with can survive. History shows that the  reality is different. This does not make me a pessimist.

If we start from the premise of impermanence, we also find that individual action defers the dire day, that it can lead to longer term improvement. We can do things, but we must have realistic expectations.      
The recent discussion thread on this blog has centred on civilisation and progress. Train Reading - introducing Toynbee's Civilization on Trial introduced the work of Arnold Toynbee. I don't want to say a lot further on Toynbee here, just a few notes relevant to this post.

Civilisation on Trial was published in 1949. The collected essays in the book were written over a twenty year period from the 1920s to the immediate post second world war period. The cold war had begun, although the USSR had yet to get the bomb. Europe was exhausted, drained by the two great wars that form the centre piece of ANZAC Day. The first war had seen the collapse of the old dynastic order, the second had begun the dismemberment of the European empires. The western centre of gravity had shifted to the United States.

Much of Toynbee's writing focused on the rise and fall of civilisations. Civilisation on Trial addresses one of Toynbee's concerns, could western civilisation itself avoid the decline experienced by all previous civilisations? The key audiences addressed are the middle classes in western countries. Despite the wars, this globally tiny elite still believed that, for them, history had ended. The comfortable assurance that their systems and values were right and enduring survived. Not so, said Toynbee. The world is different now.

I will look at Toynbee's reasoning in a later post. My present point is that the comfortable assurance that Toynbee refers to is still there. It pays us to remember that in considering ANZAC Day. After all, it is a celebration based on a defeat!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Currency equals currency on the internet

I didn't have time this morning to write here. Tonight it's late - I played tennis with my girls, started tea and then responded to a few comments.

It appears that Andrew Bolt is to grace Sydney radio.  This comment will be totally obscure to international readers. I simply note that if you want to make money in our internet world, be current. Target you writing to a specific audience. Keep your writing short so that your audience doesn't have to think. Throw in some controversy so that you will be attacked and defended. Then let it all roll.

I know how to do it. I just don't want to. It's not envy or jaundice. It's not an inflated sense of my own importance. I just live in a different world.   

Monday, April 23, 2012

Train Reading - introducing Toynbee's Civilization on Trial

My train reading this week is Arnold Toynbee's Civilization on Trial ( Oxford University Press, 1948). It was my father's book - there is a receipt inside dated 17 November 1948 from W Heffer & Sons Ltd of Cambridge for 13 shillings including postage.Prof gets his doctorate of economics, April 1970

Just in case you haven't worked it out  by now, the Belshaw's are a somewhat academic family. Just to give you some visual wall paper, this is a photo of Prof, we all called dad Prof, receiving a Doctor of Economics from the University of New England in April 1970. While I am clearly in the family tradition, I fear that I am something of an academic runt. Still, I do carry elements of the tradition on!   

As with most of my train reading I just grabbed it off the shelves, although my choice was influenced by the discussion on civilisation and related concepts that continued in Saturday Morning Musings - words, the nature of progress & the Enlightenment.

One of the issues there was Civilisation big C as compared to civilisations as in complex sophisticated societies like the Roman or Chinese empires. Toynbee was concerned with the second.  Indeed, he was arguably obsessed with the decline of civilisations, with the extent that this revealed historical laws.

Toynbee was very much a man of his time, part of the Empire and Commonwealth intellectual elite. Here I was fascinated to discover that he was initially married Rosalind Murray (1890–1967), daughter of Gilbert Murray. The Murrays were one of those Anglo-Australian Imperial families. I wrote of Toynbee's nephew by marriage, I think that I have the relationship right, in Patrick Desmond Fitzgerald Murray 1900-1967. At the time, I had no idea of the connection between my moral tutor, there's a phrase for you, and a historian that I had to study but was doing my best to ignore!

I found Toynbee's views old fashioned and even a-historical. I had no real conception of the depth of the man, nor just how modern his views actually were.

We live in a secular age. Toynbee's overt religiosity would be an impediment to many of us. Further, the exact language that he uses seems not just ponderous at some times, but more the terms sometimes create reactions because of current ways of thinking that Toynbee would have thought very odd indeed. You see, Toynbee was a man of his time and used the language of his time. He simply wouldn't have understood the reactions to his language because much of his actual messages have nothing to do with our reactions to his English. He would, I think, have looked puzzled and tried to understand just what was meant. Then he might well have concluded that that his interrogators were just proving his point!

The unjustified arrogance of many of those in the West was part of his message. He actually uses the phrase "the end of history" to describe the comfortable complacency of the middle classes in Western countries; they believe that technology will insulate them, that the inexorable forces that lead to the decline of civilisations have been broken. Not so, says Toynbee. The West is in for a rude shock.

It is Toynbee's prescriptions that have the especially old flavour. His analysis of causes and patterns does not. Stripped of language that impedes the message, that message is very current. In my next post, I will look at a few of his conclusions.             

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Are Australian banks and supermarkets killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

The phrase Killing The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg comes from Aesop's. Interestingly, and this bears upon the discussion on the nature of civilisation, there is debate as to whether Aesop drew from India or India from Aesop.  However, that's a discussion for another day.

The point of the story and saying is that greed can lead to its own destruction. Two stories in the Sydney Morning Herald bear directly on this question.

Ian Verrender's Banks playing risky game with rates looks at the approach adopted by Australia's big banks to the setting of interest rates.

For the benefit of readers who don't know the Australian scene, four big banks dominate. There are smaller local banks and other financial institutions, but they play a subsidiary role. Overseas banks are present, but their role is even more limited and has become more so since the global financial crisis. This is a matter of economics, not legislation. Even in the days of the internet, It is very difficult to access the domestic savings base without an extensive network of branches, ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) and EFTPOS facilities,

The smaller local banks, the regionals, and other institutions do provide a measure of competition at the margin.

Over the last thirty years, there has been a pattern in which the big banks effectively vacate certain niches because they can't make enough money out of them. Sometimes those decisions make sense, at other times not. The closure of bank branches in the name of efficiency is an example of the second. In recent years, all the majors have had to spend quite heavily rebuilding branch networks in order to maintain access to their customer base.

The niches neglected by the big banks create opportunities for other players. They move in and grow. That's competition. Government policy prevents the big banks buying each other, That's competition policy. Instead, the big banks buy the more successfully minnows, thus regaining the markets they abandoned, Again, that's competition.

In market terms, the Australian banking scene is best described as an oligopoly, a market in which a small number of players have the ability to be price setters rather than price takers. They watch each other and respond to each other, but try to do so in ways that will not damage their profits.

This is where Ian Verrender's article comes in. He argues that the approach adopted by the big banks to the setting of interest rates actually threatens the Australian economy. Instead of trying to sell money, that's what banks normally do, they are focused instead on increasing the margin between their costs of borrowing and the return obtained on loans. Watching each other carefully as they do, they wait for one bank to move and then the others follow. It's a ratchet effect.

To Mr Verrender's mind, this approach has two adverse results. It limits the availability of credit to new borrowers, while increasing costs for new borrowers. Profits rise as margins rise, However, if all the banks follow this approach, total lending will be adversely affected. Economic activity will decline, and so will bank profits. The goose will have been killed.

If the Australian banking sector displays oligopalistic tendencies, the Australian retail sector is a very clear oligopoly with two huge chains dominating most market sectors. To their many competing suppliers, those chains are an effective oligopsony, a few buyers and many sellers. The buyers control the market.

In competition terms, oligopoly is inherently unstable. Profit maximisation effectively depends on firms not competing on price, for if one firm shifts on price, the others must follow. Subject to price elasticities, the extent to which lower prices increase demand, profits fall for all.

The equation changes if the oligopolists are also oligopsonists. Their market power allows them to pass the costs of price competition on by squeezing their suppliers. Now the costs of competition are carried in whole or part by the supply chain.

This is just what is happening in Australia at the moment.

The two retail giants are in a price war centered on essential groceries. From an overall consumer perspective, the immediate gains are not as clear cut as might appear, for the chains have been increasing prices on other items. Still, products like bread and milk are at prices not seen for decades. This affects the consumer price index, for we actually have deflation in some areas. In turn, this makes it easier for the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates.      

So far so good. The problem lies in the squeeze placed on suppliers. This is explored in another Sydney Morning Herald article, Suppliers count the cost as Woolies and Coles shoot it out over prices.

As a consumer, I have noticed the progressive withdrawal of products I like from supermarket shelves. I do buy store brands, often I have no choice, but I don't have to like it. Beyond my personal response, the supermarkets are now effectively forcing industry restructuring in those sectors most dependent upon them as they seek to cut costs and build their own brands. They are holding their profits despite the competition, but the costs of that competition are being forced on suppliers.

In the longer term, that's not sustainable. Again, it seems another case of the golden egg.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - words, the nature of progress & the Enlightenment

in Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?, Winton Bates has continued his discussion on streams in Western thought. He concludes:

Over time, it seems to me that the values espoused by Enlightenment humanism have developed the status of a coherent world view in the democracies that is often, but not always, supported by public opinion. The process seems to be one in which disparate political philosophies, often going back centuries, act as tributaries to the broad streams of thought that flow into the rivers of public opinion. Enlightenment humanism is one of those broad streams of thought. The colour of the water in the streams and the rivers changes over time, depending on relative contributions from the different tributaries.

Winton's piece is worth reading.

In comment on A note on the idea of progress, Ramana wrote:

Surely, words like civilisation and progress themselves need acceptable definitions before we can arrive at a consensus?

These two words have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. That other parts of the world could have different ideas need to be recognised and accommodated.

Ramana's comment bears upon both Winton's discussion and my own musings around concepts like civilisation and progress. I agree with Ramana's point about the importance of definitions, I have argued this myself, although I* am not sanguine about the second point, the arrival at a consensus.

Ramana's second paragraph raises some complicated issues. At least I find them complicated!

The loose cross-blog discussion going on at present is in part about the history of certain ideas, their evolution and diffusion.

Winton's post refers to in part to the difference the British and continental especially French views linked to the Enlightenment. I have always thought of the Enlightenment with its focus on the importance of reason in advancing knowledge as being very French or, to a lesser degree German, and not always rational.

I say the last because I found the theoretical structures erected by the rational application of thought based on certain premises both opaque and increasingly divergent from reality. The great secular religions of socialism and communism can be traced back to European thought associated with the Enlightenment.  

The English and, to a lesser extent, British tradition was different. The industrial and agrarian revolutions that formed the base of the current global economy began in Britain. The loss of the American colonies, the Napoleonic Wars, the demands of managing a global mercantile Empire acquired almost by accident, all tempered English thought. The practical rather than theoretical was in demand.

Earlier I said the difference between the British and continental view. I used the word British rather than English because of the importance of the Scottish contribution. There is a remarkable but little known story here that skepticlawyer (Helen Dale) has traced through in some of her posts.

I first visited Edinburgh straight after Paris and was struck by it's French feel. The "auld alliance"  between Scotland and France exercises influence to this day. In her writing, Helen traced the way in which concepts from Rome and more broadly Europe influenced Scottish thought. The Scottish Enlightenment was one result. Wikipedia describes it in this way. 

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of humanity to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason. It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

Scotland's population was relatively small, but it was highly educated by then standards, with an estimated 75% of the population literate by 1750. Local opportunities were small, so the Scots were forced to seek opportunities elsewhere. The result was a pragmatic, outward looking, approach. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

I said that the loose cross-blog discussion going on at present is in part about the history of certain ideas, their evolution and diffusion. Inevitably, that discussion extends to the impact of those ideas. Adam Smith is an example, for non-one could deny his continuing influence even among those who have not read a word written by him! However, the discussion extends further into the continuing validity of the ideas in question. Here I want to reintroduce Ramana's point.

Ramana noted that these two words- progress and civilisation - have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. He also said that other parts of the world could have different ideas that need to be recognised and accommodated.

The ideas of civilisation and progress are deeply embedded in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. They do have a particular impact today because they manifest themselves in the activities of Governments. The constitution of, and approach adopted by, the US is still linked to its Enlightenment foundation.

You can see this if you watch West Wing, a show my family is addicted too. The Democratic Party President and especially staffers express Enlightenment views. But then, so do their opponents, for the Enlightenment was  actually a broad church. Both sides display another Enlightenment position, a certainty that their position is right!

I don't actually know to what extent ideas such as progress and civilisation manifest manifest themselves in different cultures. When Ramana says that they have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them, I can understand the political context. I am just not sure what the alternative is.

I suppose, and this is a bit of a challenge to Ramana, I need to understand the concepts embedded in alternative views. My feeling is, and I stand to be corrected, that it's actually the way of application rather than the concepts that are the problem. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

A note on the idea of progress

I found it difficult this morning to get my brain moving!

One of recurring themes that appears in any discussion on the concept of progress (the comments on Winton's Could civilization be maintained without progress? are a current example) is the relationship between progress and economic development where economic development is often interpreted as increases in per capita income.

Another view of progress that Neil Whitfield pointed me to is The Idea of Progress by J. B. Bury (1920). I haven't read this book; another gap in my reading! The preface to Bury's book says in part:

Under the control of the idea of Progress the ethical code recognised in the Western world has been reformed in modern times by a new principle of far-reaching importance which has emanated from that idea. When Isocrates formulated the rule of life, "Do unto others," he probably did not mean to include among "others" slaves or savages. The Stoics and the Christians extended its application to the whole of living humanity. But in late years the rule has received a vastly greater extension by the inclusion of the unborn generations of the future. This principle of duty to posterity is a direct corollary of the idea of Progress. In the recent war that idea, involving the moral obligation of making sacrifices for the sake of future ages, was constantly appealed to; just as in the Crusades, the most characteristic wars of our medieval ancestors, the idea of human destinies then in the ascendant lured thousands to hardship and death.

Ideas are slippery things. They exert great power, but you constantly need to define and refine to ensure that you have a common base for discussion. This is especially true for embedded ideas, those simply accepted as part of a given way of thinking.

In discussion on the ideas of civilisation and progress, a friend at work vehemently denied that there had been progress. To her mind, the growth in the human population and the pressures this had placed on the earth were, of themselves, sufficient to invalidate the very idea that there had been progress.

The dedication to Bury's book reads: 

Dedicated to the memories of Charles Francois Castel de Saint-Pierre,
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, Herbert
Spencer, and other optimists mentioned in this volume.

Optimists: now there's a word that I can identify with. You can be a pessimist and still believe in the concept of progress, if only as something that hasn't happened or cannot be achieved! Yet to believe that  real change is possible, that there has been advancement, that further advancement is possible. I think that requires a degree of optimism.

I will have to leave things there to get ready for the day.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Musings on another blogging retirement - John Quiggin

I may or may not get to a proper post today. I had to finish an overdue column. In case I don't, I wanted to record an ending, one that links to some recent discussion on this blog.

Veteran blogger John Quiggin has followed Larvatus Prodeo into blogging oblivion and for apparently similar reasons. The words "blogging oblivion" are a little unfair as you will see in a moment:

John wrote in part:

With a lot of changes going on lately, I’ve taken a bit of time to think about the future of this blog. It will be ten years old in June, which makes it one of the longest running Australian blogs .....

The writing was on the wall as early as 2004, when I saw lots of my favorite blogs being assimilated by the Borg that became Crooked Timber. Seeing that resistance was futile, I joined the rush, but have kept this blog going with lots of crossposting, but more specifically Australian content here. Still, group blogs were clearly the wave of (what was then) the future. The most successful in Ozplogistan (the briefly popular name for Australian political blogs) have been Catallaxy, Club Troppo and Larvatus Prodeo. But there haven’t been any new entrants successful enough to attract sustained attention, and now LP is gone.

There are two obvious reasons for the decline of blogging. First, after disdaining everything to do with blogging for years, the mainstream media embraced the idea with enthusiasm five years ago or so, putting much of their content in blog form. The big media blogs now attract much larger audience than independent efforts like this one. Second, there has been the rise of Facebook and Twitter, both of which supply a lot of what attracted people to blogging in the first place. Twitter, in particular, can be quite close to the original form of blogging, based on short (very short in the case of Twitter) links to interesting material found on the web.

John is not giving up blogging in total. He is going to focus on new forms of writing and then cross-post to allow some blogging discussion to continue. Still, it's a loss.

In my comment on the end of Larvatus Prodeo I wrote:

To suggest that either Twitter or Facebook contributes to political debate is, frankly, absurd. How can a constant stream of 140 characters messages actually contribute to serious discussion?

Maintenance of a regular blog is bloody hard and especially for the independent like me. So many of my fellow bloggers have just burned out or, worse, become seduced by the immediate charge that Twitter offers. Yet real discourse comes from thought, and thought cannot be expressed in 140 characters.

This remains my position.

I do not accept John's point that there are no new independent group entries successful enough to attract attention. Skepticslawyers is an example. That said, I understand John's position and am saddened by it. 

John, I will miss you, but will still follow your writing. I need alternative views to mine!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A note on artistic expression & society

In Saturday Morning Musings - civilisation, progress & the importance of empathy, I mentioned Whitehead's Adventure of Idea. Over at Freedom and Flourishing, Winton Bates was inspired to read the book and has responded in Could civilization be maintained without progress?.

It's always interesting to see how others interpret the same material. In Winton's case, his reading continued the musings expressed in a previous post: Are the arts a force for progress or do they just reflect contemporary society?

I don't have time this morning to follow up properly. To my mind, artistic express both reflects a society and affects that society. It is also influenced by the availability of raw materials whether as platform (a cave wall for example) or in form of expression. Whatever the form, the desire for artistic expression seems deeply imbedded in humanity.

The relationship between artistic expression and society, between artistic expression and culture broadly defined, means that our own interpretations are culturally determined. Yet there does seem to be some form of universal response that can cross cultures and indeed time.   

Monday, April 16, 2012

Train Reading - introducing a very short history of the world

My train reading this last week has been Geoffrey Blainey's "A very short history of the world" (Penguin Group Australia, revised edition, 2007).

In many ways, it's a very familiar book.  Many of the ideas about the changing way we see the world have been explored in Professor Blainey's other books. The sun, the moon, views of space and time are all there, if now painted on a bigger canvas. It's also in some ways an unsatisfying book because it provides just a taste of human history. I found that I wanted to know more. But then, it is (as the title says) a very short history of the world.

In reading, I looked for things that would help me better integrate the broad sweep of history, to see how things fitted together across time and space. Did it pass this test? I think it did, although there were times when I thought that more dates or even comparative tables would have helped.

  With the best will in the world, I think that this is still a Euro-centric book. In a way, that's inevitable since it is a history of the world, not of it's constituent parts. I said the best will in the world, for the writer  consciously tries to ensure full coverage. However, his strong focus on broad interactions - the way people and their societies interacted - drops other things out. Professor Blainey is also forced to generalise. Sometimes, I found myself questioning those generalisations.

One thing that the book brings out very clearly is the nature of the discontinuities between the current human present and the long human past. The last two hundred years are just a blink of the eye in human history, and yet that period saw transformations that have disconnected us from our past. The industrial revolution, the huge expansion in global populations, the revolutionary effect of new transport, the rise of the mega city, the sheer interconnectedness of previously separate groups have all contributed.

The stamp that the present places upon the past conceals the change. We see, but do not always understand.   

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Snippets

Just snippets this morning.

Regular commenter kvd is always an interesting source. He pointed me to this article: High-frequency trading is cuckoo. You may have to register (it's free) to access it. I really wasn't clear on just what high frequency trading was. On the surface, the ASX itself would appear to be guilt of at least facilitating insider trading.

Over at skepticslawyer, Lorenzo has joined the team in what might be described as a case of affirmative action, the addition of a male! It's quite a complex piece, but Legal Eagle's Academic theory and practice is worth a read. In comments, skepticlawyer herself demonstrates that all roads continue to lead to Rome. I really have learnt a lot from her comments.

Loosely, perhaps not so loosely, linked to this is my present train reading, Geoffrey Blainey's A very short history of the world. I am enjoying it and not just because Professor Blainey is a very good writer. He provides a context, a framework, that fits together bits of human history across the globe including Rome.

My knowledge of history has grown enormously since I started blogging. That's fun.

I blinked when I read Pleistocene Re-Wilding: Environmental Restoration or Ecological Heresy? However, in a way it captures something that has often concerned me about the modern environmental movement, the tendency to attempt to freeze at a point in time regardless of past or future.

Staying on the environment, I couldn't let the retirement of Australian Greens' leader Bob Brown pass without a comment. Bob was in my class at primary school. I wish he and his partner Paul a happy time together.

While I haven't met Paul beyond some email exchanges, I suspect that a fair bit of Bob's success and especially his stability has been due to Paul's willingness to play the supporting partner role. It's just so much easier to do things when you have a secure home base.

One of the reasons I got so angry at the the ABC's At Home with Julia was my distaste at the treatment of her partner. I suspect that Tim probably laughed, but I still reserve the right to be angry on his behalf!

I often rail at the way in which do-gooder Government policies have adverse effects. This story is a case in point - Art collector stopped from donating collection by Australian legislation.

I can't comment on the accuracy of the story because I haven't done the checking research. However, the point that our desire to protect the Aboriginal cultural heritage has actually damaged current Aboriginal artists does ring true. 

Oh dear, I had to laugh. In a comment on his own post, Parenting goes corporate, Nicholas Gruen wrote:

“We aim to be a world-class family leveraging our skills to the advantage of all.”

Do at least scan Nicholas' post. As a management consultant I used to peddle this stuff. I thought then, and indeed do now, that a focus on mission, vision and values was important. But then it all became just another example of what I have come to call mechanistic management, a substitute for real thought, a process that you had to go though.

As I have so often complained, the combination of photos with pastel colours does not a policy or business statement make.

I appear to be adopting my grumpy old man role. Time to finish, I think.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Glimpses into a policy past - the 1984 Australian aerospace industry development statement

One of the things that I struggle with on this blog is actually bringing alive some of the things I talk about, to explain how things work, why things go wrong, what needs to be done to improve performance. 

I threw out most of my papers from the Canberra and then Aymever periods. Later, I regretted this. Now digging through my old papers as part of my present restructuring, a word actually relevant to this post, I have found all sorts of interesting bits and pieces. More had survived than I realised. 

The following press release was the first in a series of releases on our then attempts to position Australia in the high technology sector.

I still remember this one very clearly.

Minister John Button (and here) had decided that he wanted to release the aerospace industries plan via a press conference. When I went to see him for a pre-conference briefing he was in an ebullient mood. I couldn't get him to focus.

This was not the first time I had briefed a minister, nor my first press release. Both were common nature. However, it was the first time I had briefed on a major initiative that I had played a key role in crafting, one where we had to fight hard to get it through. It was also the first in a rolling series of announcements that we expected the minister to make over coming years.

Yes, that's right, years! The work plan that I had developed with my colleagues- the pattern of rolling but integrated policy reviews -  required several years of work, more to keep implementation going. The later Communications Equipment Industry Development Strategy had a ten year time horizon built into it.

We knew that just as the structural problems being experienced by Australian industry had taken years to develop, so effective responses would take years.

I do not remember whether or not this was the first "industry plan'". Our division was working on the first Button Car Plan at that time. I tried to check dates, but the on-line material  does not help. My memory is that the aerospace statement was the first. Further comments follow the press release.   



Looking at the statement, it is almost a template for all those statements that came later and across portfolios. My current public service colleagues will find it totally familiar.

This illustrates a problem, the difference between mechanics and creativity. The practical mechanics of policy development tend to dictate very common structures to both policy and implementation. And yet, results can vary greatly. How things are done makes the difference. 

As I left the press conference after the release, I felt dissatisfied. Because I hadn't been able to get John to focus properly, I knew that we hadn't given the media the things required. We had set in train a process, one that I believed would give results. And yet, we hadn't started well.

I don't blame the minister. While he was the boss, it was my job to give him advice, structure and information. It was also my job to be persistent, to manage his mood. To my mind, the failure was my own.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Larvatus Prodeo dies

When I posted Sunday Essay - is the internet drowning in it's own excreta?, I did not expect such an immediate illustration of my point. Two days later, Larvatus Prodeo announced that it was ceasing publication. For the benefit of my international readers, Larvatus Prodeo was a a group left of centre blog.

On Catallaxy Files, Sinclair Davidson sniffed:

Another part of the story, I suspect, is the intellectual exhaustion on the left. They just don’t have a story to tell. Snarky comments can fit into twitter but full argument cannot. I think this is very much a retreat from the front-line in the market for ideas. The new(er) social media complement a blogging presence, while the LP crowd are substituting.

What particularly pleases me is that we at the Cat have managed to renew ourselves and survive the retirement of the founder (Jason Soon – for all the newbies). We have a story to tell and authors to write up our arguments.

Lord knows I did not agree with many of the posts on Larvatus Prodeo and especially the group think displayed in comments,  But then, Catallaxy Files displays exactly the same tendency! 

While I was not a "follower" of  Larvatus Prodeo, I did check it often. I did so because I needed an alternative view on my own perceptions.

On Skepticslawyers, skeptic lawyer (Helen Dale) wrote:  

Leaving everything else aside, Mark made the following observation:

"There’s no longer the same need for a hub for political discussion, as lively debate has migrated to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and as the space for opinion and analysis around the shop has widened. The fact that the ‘blogosphere’ in Australia is no longer a term that makes much sense is an indicator of that change."

The reason I’ve quoted this passage is that I think he’s wrong. I think Twitter is a terrible platform for political debate; it encourages the worst sort of sound-bite approach to complex issues; the only use for Twitter seems to be (a) the conspicuous display of wit (which one of my lecturers at Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith, does amazingly well) and (b) the embodiment of Cameron’s First Law. There is no middle ground. And if a tweet is ‘heavyweight’ or thought-provoking, it’s because it links to an article somewhere that addresses the issue in greater depth.

Then there’s facebook, which as my friends know is a repository (at least in my case) for cat humour, funny dog pictures (mainly from Dogs for the Disabled) and my endless complaints about HMRC (when I’m finished this tax seat I plan to burn my Tolley’s statutes, all five volumes of them, 3000+ pages each, printed on Bible paper). The idea that facebook is a good place for political debate strikes me as ‘not even wrong’.

To suggest that either Twitter or Facebook contributes to political debate is, frankly, absurd. How can a constant stream of 140 characters messages actually contribute to serious discussion?

Maintenance of a regular blog is bloody hard and especially for the independent like me. So many of my fellow bloggers have just burned out or, worse, become seduced by the immediate charge that Twitter offers. Yet real discourse comes from thought, and thought cannot be expressed in 140 characters.

The Australian bloggosphere will be the worst for LP's passing.

There was a rather piece on Orange Juice & RyvitaThe Larva Rodeo.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aymever Days - a Xmas shot

Over on Facebook I added the following photo. Comments follow. IMG

This is what I wrote on Facebook. I think that it helps explain in part where I am coming from.

"Aymever Christmas Party 1989. One of the big industry development issues at the time was the way in which clustering, the grouping of start-ups around a node, could create growth and grow new skills. This photo is a case in point, if on a small scale.

From left to right Scott Williams, Philip and Susan Mendes.

After Scott left us he went on co-found Petals, growing the business to become the fourth largest global competitor to Interflora within three years. Petals was sold last year to Teleflora, bit is still Armidale headquartered. Scott is now Deputy Chancellor at UNE.

Philip had just set up as an Armidale solicitor. We put him on retainer. He is now a successful IP lawyer in Brisbane providing highly specialised advice. Years later, I used Philip on complex patent issues for a Sydney client.

By Xmas 1989, there were more than twelve Armidale based high tech start-ups employing directly and indirectly several hundred people, all on growth trajectories. Growth had started to become self-feeding, Aymever itself had a staff of seventeen with a much larger global network of associates, including a dozen UNE academics. By the mid nineties, much of this was gone.

There were particular local factors at play, including instability in UNE and the difficulties we all experienced in breaking through in an environment where to be non-metro based was to be classified as second rate. You had to be better just to survive. But there were also broader national issues, for the same pattern was replicated elsewhere in Australia. Burned by the recession that struck Australia and by a hostile environment that denied that Australia could do this type of thing, the large entrepreneurial flowering of the 1980s diminished like flowers caught by frost.

In a comment, I added:

"This photo is one of a series. I am adding linked material on my personal blog. While the scars of our failure are still unhealed, I haven't forgotten our dream and still campaign for improvement as best I can. I am not alone, for the knowledge of what is possible still drives many of us."

I think the last is a key point.


Briefly amplifying my last point, its not so much that scars are unhealed in regard to particular successes or failures. Rather, it's a feeling that many of us have of a lost general opportunity, of having come so close collectively to breaking through. I will discuss this in more detail later, for it is relevant to some of the material I have been writing. 

Monday, April 09, 2012


COAG stands for the Council of Australian Governments. In theory, this is the platform that allows the Commonwealth, states and territories to get together to discuss things. The COAG web site (link earlier) describes its role in these terms:

The role of COAG is to initiate, develop and monitor the implementation of policy reforms that are of national significance and which require cooperative action by Australian governments (for example, health, education and training, Indigenous reform, early childhood development, housing, microeconomic reform, climate change and energy, water reform and natural disaster arrangements). Issues may arise from, among other things: Ministerial Council deliberations; international treaties which affect the States and Territories; or major initiatives of one government (particularly the Australian Government) which impact on other governments or require the cooperation of other governments.

Sounds good? Well, read on.

COAG is supported by a COAG Reform Council. It's mission is describe in these terms:

To assist COAG to drive its reform agenda by strengthening public accountability of governments through independent and evidence-based assessment and performance reporting.

This to sounds good. The reality is a little different, This is reflected in a recent Council press release calling on COAG to act on Council reports, as well as in press reports on statements by Council Paul McClintock AO. Mr McClintock has suggested that Australian Governments get on with it.

COAG cannot work in any effective way until two primary problems are overcome.

First, COAG suffers from the Rudd disease. It tries to do too much.

Part of COAG's role is to provide a forum for discussion and information exchange. But when it comes to action, COAG is too centralised, too bureaucratic, too overloaded with action items to actually do much.

The second problem impeding COAG operations is the dominance of a Federal Government that always tries to dictate, to impose its will, along with a myriad of performance and reporting requirements. For some obscure reason, the states and territories resist. Rubric such as "cooperative federalism" or "national partnerships" cannot conceal the practical reality.

Can COAG change? Can it be made to work?

Don't hold your breath. I can see no evidence that the Commonwealth is actually prepared to prioritise, let alone engage in proper discussion. COAGulation rules!        

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Sunday Essay - is the internet drowning in it's own excreta?

Looking back over my emails for the last few months, there has been a rising tide either seeking or offering links. The number of unsolicited email dealing with search engine optimisation is well up, as are emails seeking or offering content.

During this same period, there has been a noticeable decline in links to any of my blogs. Part of the explanation here lies in my failure to maintain current content. However, the pattern still holds even for this blog where I have maintained regular posting.

Over on Twitter, the number of tweets has passed my capacity to absorb them in the time I have. A colleague has actually stopped using Twitter on the grounds that it is no longer possible to find what is interesting within the constant ephemera.

I use search engines all the time. Here I have noticed the same pattern as the constant increase in ephemera makes it harder and harder to find the material I want. There is another problem as well. The constant rise in the use of the internet for transactions purposes, itself something of value, adds to the overall content and indeed confusion.

To my mind, the internet is in danger of suffocating under its own excreta. However, there is more to it than that.

When the internet began, it was rather like shopping in a small town. You knew the street layout, you knew where the stores were. Now the internet has became a mega global city in which no person can even attempt to follow the overall pattern, let alone understand the detailed intricacies.

You shop or eat in that local area directly related to your needs, the things that you are interested in or need to do, putting the rest aside. Even then you have a problem, for the map changes everyday even in your local area. Nothing is stable.

Just as none of us can understand the tax acts in any country or indeed the full scope of the road rules, now we cannot understand the internet.  Then, as always happens with increased systemic complexity, we start to simplify, looking just at the things we most need. In my case, for example, I am going to unfollow certain news outlets on Twitter so that I can better focus on those things, mainly people, that I do wish to follow.

Complexity also increases the demand for training and for professional support.

Globally, demand for html training has exploded because the number of people who need, or think that they need, this skill to manage their own online activities has been growing exponentially. Globally, demand for specific courses from e-publishing to writing in an online environment has also been growing.

Those who make a living from meeting this demand are obviously aware of the broad trends and and responding to them as best they can. And yet, somehow, they are failing.

Take my own case as an example.

In my own small way I actually run an internet business. I normally don't think of it in that way, yet it's true. I have a number of blogs, there are web sites, I write and publish in a variety of fora. I generate a small income stream from ads or donations, receive a variety of what we might think of as in-kind offers. Most of the second I ignore because of time constraints. I have no easy way of assessing them.    

Those who send me unsolicited SEO proposals generally get a dusty response because maximising my search engine position, while potentially useful, is just not high on my priority list. My needs are different.

I actually need assistance in managing what I do. I need assistance in maximising the value of my content. I need assistance in managing and evaluating the offers I do get. I need certain types of technical support. And I need support in areas like e-publishing. I am also severely limited in what I can pay.

Trying to define and clarify all this in the simplest way, I need support that identifies my needs in an integrated way and then defines the best way of meeting them, subject to my own constraints. To the best of my knowledge, that support does not exist.

In one way, I am not a good example because of my cash constraints. In a second way I am, because I am a moderately sophisticated heavy internet user.

I have no doubt that services and supporting infrastructure of the type I need will emerge. And this brings me to my final point.

Both the internet and all the services that support the internet are niching.

This process is still in its early days, but the broad patterns are becoming clear.

People will still use the broad internet, but increasingly they will focus on slices most directly relevant to them. One internet will be replaced by many internets. The internet you know will be different from that I know. The look will be different, the mode of operations different, the language different, the information displayed different.

This fragmentation will come at a cost, including at least the partial unifying element provided by the broad internet. Yet it is, I think, inevitable.        

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Saturday morning snippets - bread, circuses and cultural necrophiliacs

A few things this morning that you may find interesting.

A link from Christopher Moore led me to this piece in the Canadian journal Foreign Affairs, Game of Thrones as History. This examines the relationship between R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and medieval life. The message is summed up this way: "It's Not as Realistic As It Seems--and That's Good."

Ramana's The Salt Of The Earth provides a nice perspective on the mix in Indian life. It includes a link through to a story on the Americanisation of India. Globe centered on Asia, with Asia highlighted. The continent is shaped like a right-angle triangle, with Europe to the west, oceans to the south and east, and Australia visible to the south-east.

In a discussion on What does "Asia" and the "Asian century" mean?, Ramana suggested that he certainly thought of himself as Asian!

This map from the Wikipedia article on Asia shows the spread of Asia as currently defined. The Wikipedia article is worth reading, for it draws out some of the difficulties in geographic labelling, including the way very old ideas continue to affect thinking today.

I missed this at the time, but historian Simon Schama has branded the popular Downton TV series as 'cultural necrophilia'. Really love that phrase! My thanks to the Idle Historian for the link.

On economics and the Australian economy, Malcolm Maiden's A year on, and no closer to resurrection provides a simple but useful summary of developments in the Australian economy over the last twelve months. It sets a useful context for some of the changes and stresses

Finishing with history, I found skepticlawyer's Panem et circenses an absolutely fascinating post because it provided another set of insights into one of the world's great empires. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

What does "Asia" and the "Asian century" mean?

Waking up early this morning with no deadlines for the rest of the day, I enjoyed the luxury of a relaxed stroll around my part of the blogosphere. There were many things that I could write about as a consequence, some serious, others not so. In the end, my attention was caught by the on-going discussion on the Lowy Institute blog on Australia in the Asian Century. You will find the full series of posts here.

By way of background for international readers, the Australian Government has commissioned a White Paper (The Henry Review) on Australia in the Asian Century to consider the likely economic and strategic changes in the region and what more can be done to position Australia for the Asian Century. The Lowy Institute is attempting to encourage discussion on the issues raised.

In this brief comment, I want to look at just one issue, the importance of definitions.

Over the last few years, I have written a fair bit on the way our mental mud maps and the words we use to express those maps affect thinking.

The world is a complex place. To understand it, we have to simplify, to create patterns. We then attach labels to those patterns, each representing a bundle of thoughts and views. Those labels acquire a life of their own, conditioning subsequent thought and actions. Importantly, the labels act to exclude alternative ways of thinking.  

"Asia" is example of such a label, as is the idea of an "Asian century". You can see the influence at work in this quote from an interview with Bob Carr, Australia's new Foreign minister in The Phnom Penh Post.  

I think our engagement will grow. The Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has a very cordial view of Australia. I remember one minister saying that Australians may have white skin — but that’s less and less true, as our population has Asianised — but we think like Asians. That’s a very great compliment, because we are working hard to adapt to a century that will be dominated by Asia.

Now I have no idea what this quote actually means. We can see that Hun Sen has a view of Asia and Australia, Bob Carr has a view of Asia and Australia, but beyond that?

Take "we think like Asians". What do Asians actually think? Indeed, what are Asians?

Asia is a useful geographic descriptor, although the boundaries of Asia have varied.

Take, as an example, the use of term subcontinent to describe the Indian peninsular. This recognises that the peninsular is part of Asia, but is also distinct, almost a continent in its own right. Of course, the very idea of continents is an example of another label.

Now if we look at the subcontinent and immediate surrounds, is Afghanistan or Shri Lanka part of Asia? Or, for that matter, Tibet?

The old British centric label of the Far East, a label synonymous with Asia, excluded India. The Indian Empire adjoined, but was distinct from Asia. Japan or China were Asian, India was not. It was a world of its own.

Just at the moment my train reading is Geoffrey Blainey's A very short history of the world. The river civilisations that arose in what is now China and India were very distinct, although there was a flow of ideas. To lump the whole lot now with their very different histories under a single label, Asia, is to mislead.

Power is always expressed in geographic terms.

To Australia with its dependence on sea lanes, the critical geopolitical issues are in fact maritime. This country's world centres on the Pacific and Indian oceans and on the critical sea lanes. This coincides with main national groupings - India with its focus on the Indian ocean and its relationships with adjoining Pakistan and China; North Asia and especially China with their relationships to each other, the Pacific and the US; and the ASEAN countries and especially Indonesia that straddle key sea lanes and provide something of a natural buffer against developments further north.

This is a complex pattern, further complicated by our relationships with the US. Further, it is a pattern over which this country has very little control. Australia may, as our foreign ministers delight in telling us, be a mid range power. However, the words of themselves indicate the limits. We are important enough to be a player, but our role will always be a subsidiary one outside certain limited areas.

Much of the current discussion on Australia in the Asian century centres on economics. Even here we have to be careful about the application of the label Asian, for Asia is not an economic entity.

To amplify this, consider the Sydney Morning Herald piece: How corporate Australia found a niche in India. However Asia may be defined, each Asian country represents a different market place or indeed market places, each with its own complexities. You cannot speak in generalities.

The growing integration between Australia and various Asian countries will continue, bringing their own changes in this country.

Just as major Australian hotels and tour operators once focused on the Japanese market place, now China is the flavour of the month. From congee for breakfast to the inclusion of Chinese language TV stations in room offerings, Australia's hotels are attempting to meet the needs of the growing Chinese visitor marketplace. In doing so, they are not focusing on the generality Asia, but on the specifics of a defined group of customers.

I think that this really captures my point. Rather than focusing on Asia as such, Australia's approach has to be multi-level and nuanced, taking differences into account. This leads to me to doubt the value of the white paper itself beyond a very superficial level. To my mind, there is actually a real risk that it might mislead, translating into generalities that conceal the need to respond to difference.        

Thursday, April 05, 2012

That crumpled look

Today I found my mind drifting again to clothes, following on from Refashioning Dad and then End of the fashion big brands?

One thing that I has amazed me a little is the return of the crumpled look.

If you at old photos other than posed shots, you will see that clothes are often very crumpled. It was just such a pain to press things, if indeed you could. I actually remember the old irons heated on top of the stove, for they lingered on well into the fifties if only in store.

Now when I look at fashion shots, both men and women sometimes look very crumpled indeed.

At one level I don't mind. Crumpled saves time. At a second level, I do wonder.

Why pay a huge sum just to look crumpled when you could achieve just the same effect by sleeping in your clothes overnight? It's on par with It's on par with what we might call "aged" jeans. Fancy paying a premium for a piece of clothing when you can achieve the same effect through normal wear and tear!

But then, I will never be a dedicated follower of fashion.    

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

End of the fashion big brands?

Continuing my muse on fashion that began withIMG Refashioning Dad, one of the points that Marion Humes makes in her review of the Australian fashion industry is the explosion in choice available to women since she became editor of Vogue in, I think, 1997. That would certainly fit with my own impressions. 

Part of the increased choice came from reduced tariff protection making a wider range of cheaper goods available. Then many people simply had more money to spend. Most recently, the internet has provided access to a very wide range of fashion choices indeed.

Neither choice nor indeed designer labels necessarily means quality or style. I thought that the man's outfit in this photo was remarkably daggy. I was reassured that eldest daughter shared that view.

The cost of the outfit, by the way: Armani gray jacket $1,390, pants $690 and cotton shirt $390. I can look just as daggy at far less cost.

As often happens, my interest in the review was sparked by professional as well as personal interest.

In the first half of last year I did some work for Dilanchian Lawyers. This included analysis of particular client matters. I am not a lawyer, although I have a reasonably good general knowledge of certain areas of law. Instead, I focused on disentangling the economic and commercial issues underlying the various cases. A number of the cases I looked at involved the fashion industry.

In her review, Ms Humes pointed to some of the changes that have been taking place in the structure of the fashion industry. Those changes lay at the heart of the cases I reviewed.

The simple bricks and mortar models of the past were being replaced by a multiplicity of distribution channels in an increasingly global market place. In turn, this had created a complex web of legal agreements as suppliers attempt to maximise their position across markets and channels. The result has been some something of a lawyers delight!

Fashion has always been fickle. Styles change, as does brand positioning. The rise of the brand has been one of the remarkable features of the last twenty years. No matter where you go in the world, you will find the same brands, real and counterfeit.

But can the brand survive? I do wonder about that.

I am not saying that brands will vanish. People are still attracted by labels that have particular status or images attached to them. But increasingly, consumers use the internet to search for styles they like independent of brand.

The concept of territory, a defined geographic market, has already become a victim of the changes. Why buy a brand at a particular store when you can source exactly the same thing from a multiplicity of sources?

The big brands are  already struggling with this one. It lies at the heart of many commercial disputes. Now they have to face multiple competitors and an increasingly sophisticated consumer. It all makes life a tad difficult!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Refashioning Dad

Eldest daughter Helen has become the fashion guru for her father and also, if to a lesser extent, her mother.

My train reading this morning was in fact an article, really a set of articles, that appeared in Australia's Friday Financial Review glossy magazine. In a status update on Facebook I wrote:

I  normally don't read the glossy magazine that appears in Friday's Financial Review. Too many things that I either don't like or can't afford! This time I was attracted by Marion Humes' review of the Australian fashion industry. It was bitsy, that's pretty much normal now because of reduced attention spans, but there was some interesting stuff. Maybe a story or two!

While my focus in the comment was on the stories themselves, I was also thinking personally.

When I got home tonight, I gave Helen the section to read, asking her opinion. I also asked her about some of the ads for men's clothing. Her opinions mirrored mine. That was reassuring. We then talked about my desire to buy some new clothing. I wanted to shift my image.

As a writer trying to support a writing addiction through contract work, I simply cannot afford the clothes I used to buy. The money is just not there. On the other hand, I like to look smart.  So H and I worked trough my wardrobe.

I was reassured that she thought my basic taste was good. I never buy top fashion stuff, more classic lines that are likely to last. I also try to buy clothes that will fit in different circumstances.

We worked through my remaining clothing, much old. I will throw half of this out, replacing it with a limited number of new purchases built around strong statements. That way I get a good mix, things that will make me feel smart.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Influenza baby

I have been at a function for much of the day and don't really feel like writing. So just a family shot.

This is Aunt Phyllis. She was an outgoing and much loved child who died from influenza during the First World war.

We in Western countries forget today just how dangerous diseases like influenza were. Somehow we believe that we can escape the fragilities of life. The reality is quite different. 

Life is remarkably fragile. So enjoy life while you have it.